Putin foe speaks out from rural self-exile


The story of Marina Salye has clung to Russia for years, a dark, cautionary tale that lurks beneath the rise of Vladimir Putin.

A St. Petersburg legislator in the early post-Soviet days, Salye investigated Putin and boldly accused him of corruption. Then, soon after Putin ascended to the presidency, she dropped out of view. Putin was reelected, and she didn’t say a word. Putin began to curtail local elections, rein in independent television stations and consolidate power,and she stayed silent. She had been threatened by Putin, people said. She was afraid for her life.

Salye retreated to the middle of nowhere -- reaching her home requires an all-night train from Moscow followed by hours of driving, some of the way over dirt roads. She doesn’t want the name of her village printed. But after nearly a decade of silence, she is speaking out again.

“I said that a dictatorship would be established. Not only a police state, but a KGB state,” says Salye, 75. “And now we’ve come to this.”

Salye has resurfaced at a moment of vague ferment. Stirrings of renewed anti-Putin dissent have been whispering through Russia lately as a second hard winter of economic struggle eats away at Russian complacency -- and as state television airs speculation over whether Putin, now prime minister, will return to the Kremlin in the next presidential election.

Demonstrations have erupted across the country in recent months, including ones in Moscow and elsewhere Saturday. A petition titled “Putin must go” has been posted anonymously on the Web -- so far, more than 10,000 people have signed. And in last weekend’s regional elections, Putin’s ruling United Russia party discovered that its support had eroded in some regions.

Salye is drinking tea in her kitchen when the subject of Russia’s current leadership comes up. She gets a very hard look on her lined face and says, simply, “Mafia is immortal.”

After years of fearing for her life, Salye says she broke her silence out of indignation over a recent state television tribute to the late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Putin’s onetime boss and mentor, Sobchak is widely credited for shaping the clan that runs today’s Russia. To Salye’s disgust, the television program praised him as a great democrat.

The show grated on Salye, a fourth-generation resident of St. Petersburg who ate wood chips to survive during the World War II blockade of Leningrad, as the city was then known.

“I’ve thought a lot about the situation in the country. About how the nation is dying,” she said. “As for Sobchak, you know, he and Putin were connected in a single chain.”

Despite her bravado, Salye is visibly nervous at the renewed attention. She quarrels with her sister over whether to allow a reporter to visit. Some of her family members have stopped speaking to her.

“They are very scared for me. Everybody is calling them too,” she said. “Everybody is asking, how is Marina? And the answer is, she’s alive.”

Salye clashed with Putin in 1992, when she was the head of St. Petersburg’s food commission.

During those rough and wild days, the country was badly in need of food aid. The federal government allocated raw materials -- timber, oil and rare metals -- to St. Petersburg, and ordered the city to barter with foreign companies in exchange for desperately needed foodstuffs.

As the head of the city’s committee to attract foreign investment, Putin, a longtime KGB agent who then worked for the city, was supposed to be in charge of negotiations. But instead, Salye alleges, he gave licenses to fake companies in order to export the raw materials. The valuable materials disappeared, St. Petersburg never got its food, and the companies were impossible to trace, she says.

During her investigation, carried out under the authority of the St. Petersburg City Council, she met face to face with Putin.

“The conversation was very tough, very unpleasant,” she says.

“His reaction to everything was absolutely calm. He said, ‘All your efforts will be in vain.’ ”

In the end, she says, Sobchak intervened, Putin’s committee was moved under the supervision of the federal government, and her investigation was dropped. But all these years later, she still has the documents: contracts struck between Putin or his deputy and companies that, Salye charges, didn’t really exist; the letter from the Federal Audit Chamber asking that Putin not be considered for promotions.

Putin later insisted that the companies cheated the city, failed to deliver the foodstuffs and then vanished.

“There was nothing and nobody to sue,” he told the authors of a 2000 book about his rise to power. Putin said he never issued any licenses for the export of raw materials.

Salye still won’t say what scared her into silence. To answer the question, she tells a story: One day she met with Sergei Yushenkov, a leading liberal politician.

The two were supposed to meet alone, she said, but when she arrived, a prominent officer of the FSB, the powerful and shadowy intelligence service that had been reconstituted from the KGB, was in his office. She refuses to name the spy, but says the atmosphere was menacing.

“He didn’t leave, and Yushenkov didn’t ask him to leave,” she says now. “It meant Yushenkov was in great danger.”

She cut the meeting short, and “decided I had better keep silent.”

Yushenkov, who had accused the FSB of plotting apartment bombings south of Moscow in order to justify the second Chechen war, was gunned down in his doorway in 2003. He had just registered a new, liberal political party. By then, Salye was already gone. In 2000, she turned her back on Russia’s big cities for a village consisting of 26 cottages, six people and a lone pay telephone on the edge of a cemetery. Horses still clop along the roads, hauling loads of hay. Salye lives with her sister, hand-feeds the wild birds and putters around mumbling to her aging dogs and cat.

Through the years, her disappearance took on a power of its own. The story rattled around Moscow for years: that Putin had directly threatened her with a New Year’s wish for “good health -- and the opportunity to use it.”

It never happened, she insists. But she speculates that the story was floated as a warning.

“Maybe that story was meant as an indirect threat,” she says now. “Maybe somebody needed to drive it home to me.”